How many best-seller lists are too many for the trade?

October 28, 2007|By Josh Getlin | Josh Getlin,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- It has been criticized for being ingrown and unscientific, a weekly work of fiction that - for all its seeming authoritativeness - is shrouded in mystery. So when The New York Times Book Review announced it would begin splitting its paperback best-seller list into two lists, one reserved for quality paperback fiction, a chorus of voices in publishing began parsing What It All Meant.

Some declared it a long-overdue recognition of the importance of so-called trade paperbacks, the larger, more expensive editions that feature works by critically praised writers. Those books have had to compete for spots on the Times best-seller list with smaller, cheaper, glitzier mass-market paperbacks by brand-name authors like John Grisham and David Baldacci. But critics said the creation of yet another best-seller list threatened to dilute the meaning of the term. And they said it also threatened to dilute the Book Review itself, which announced that, at least initially, the section would lose a page of copy to make room for expanded book listings.

Industry observers agreed that the Book Review probably would attract more ads from publishers with the debut of a new paperback fiction list. Yet this raised a sensitive issue. These lists do give crucial exposure to new books, but they are also just one more marketing tool for publishers.

"It's a balancing act," said Carlin Romano, the longtime book critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "And in this case, I think the Times Book Review knows exactly what it's doing, to tilt the balance in order to attract more advertising. But they're also giving a lot more authors the right to claim now that they're best-sellers. This will give them very good exposure, but philosophically, the more best-sellers you have, the less the term means."

The review is running two expanded fiction lists: One is for 20 mass-market paperbacks; the other is intended to feature more literary works by such writers as Cormac McCarthy, Claire Messud and Jeffrey Eugenides. As part of a redesign, the review is also boosting the number of books on its "How To, Advice and Miscellaneous" list, swelling the total number of best-seller titles from 70 to 110. But the lists don't stop there: The Times also ranks an extra 15 best-sellers on its "extended" fiction and nonfiction charts online.

The stakes are high, because The New York Times Book Review is the most influential publication of its kind in the U.S. book world. And the chance to make one of its best-selling lists can make a huge difference to authors, agents, publishers and booksellers. For many, the new fiction list is a long-overdue validation of trade paperbacks, which are prominently displayed these days in many chain and independent bookstores.

Indeed, some publishers are issuing quality fiction directly into paperback, and sales are encouraging: Trade paperbacks had a 6.6 percent sales gain in the last three years, and a majority of the best-selling trade paperbacks in the last two years were fiction, according to Albert Greco, a Fordham University business professor and publishing expert. Unveiling a new paperback fiction list is significant, he added, because "the Times' best-seller lists and reviews have an impact on sales, especially in independent bookstores, where buyers often consult them."

In the first trade fiction list, which ran one recent Sunday, the bottom rung was filled by The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, whose complex, ambiguous novel won last year's National Book Award for fiction. Powers' title might not have been expected to make the weekly paperback list under the Times' old formula. The new list also benefited author Lisa See, whose Snow Flower and the Secret Fan did not make the previous paperback rankings but debuted at 10 on the new list. More than half of the titles of the new list, however, were filled by books on the previous week's list, including Water for Elephants, The Kite Runner and Suite Francaise.

The arrival of a new list "is something we've hoped for, for many years," said Paul Slovak, publisher of Viking, which issues many of its fiction titles in paperback at the Penguin Press. "Getting good books on a best-seller list is a great marketing vehicle for paperbacks, and this decision will make that easier."

The New York Times Book Review's best-seller list is no stranger to controversy. For years, skeptics have questioned the soundness of the way it is compiled, typically by having merchants across the nation fill out questionnaires about which books are selling. Times staffers then "weight" these results according to whether they are from chain or independent bookstores or other outlets; beyond that, the paper has declined to reveal the precise methodology. Competing lists are produced by an array of newspapers, literary publications and bookstore chains.

Josh Getlin writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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